After wrapping the Netflix international hit series Sweet Tooth, Stefania LaVie Owen embarked on an unexpected journey of self-discovery, she tells Siena Yates.
The plan was to go to Queenstown to see the sights and relax in one of the world’s most picturesque destinations, but Stefania LaVie Owen has never been one for following plans – not even her own.
After starring in Sweet Tooth, one of Netflix’s biggest shows of the year, the young New Zealand-American star should have been working the Hollywood circuit, gracing red carpets and rubbing shoulders with celebrities.
Instead, she was on her own at the bottom of the world, living on the bare essentials out of a van she bought after filming ended.
Despite dreams of Queenstown, Stefania got as far as Nelson and realised she’d found what she didn’t even know she was looking for.
“After finishing Sweet Tooth, I just needed to focus on my mental health, without anything that felt like it defined me, so I took a van and was by myself. It was such an incredible thing,” says the 23-year-old. “It simplified everything. I thought that as soon as I got it, I’d just feel this full freedom, and I did – but also, you have to face your shit.
“I thought I was going to go all the way to Queenstown, but when I was in Nelson… I just needed to be still and not have so many things distract me. It allows you to just really go deeper into yourself.”
Stefania, who was born in Miami but raised in Pāuatahanui (just north of Wellington), has worked with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Matthew McConaughey and even Snoop Dogg, but it was fellow travellers she met on the road who really changed her perspective on life.
“There are so many awesome international people that are living in New Zealand, just parking up wherever, and the pure joy and groundedness of these people… I was like, wow. Sometimes it’s so easy to feel stuck in what you’re doing or where you are, but they really taught me how much possibility there is and that we’re not stuck – it’s all in the mind.”
This new outlook is one Stefania has been entrenching herself in for some time now. It’s why she found herself back in New Zealand even before Covid hit and it’s why she’s in no real rush to leave, despite her career being at yet another peak.
Stefania lives between her home in Wellington and her parents’ home in Pāuatahanui. But up until two or three years ago, she was based in America, living in both California and New York, acting in back-to-back productions, including The Beach Bum, Messiah and The Carrie Diaries, as well as travelling the world.
She was living what many people might consider the dream, but after a few years of that “boom, boom, boom” lifestyle, Stefania burned out. Not only that, but she suddenly realised she hadn’t seen her younger sister in more than a year – which, considering they were usually “super close”, hit Stefania hard.
“I suddenly was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to go home,’” recalls Stefania, whose mum Margarita is Cuban-American and dad Mark is a Kiwi.
At the time, she was planning a trip to Spain, but cancelled all her bookings and returned to New Zealand, where she’s now been for about three years – the longest period of time she’s ever spent here uninterrupted.
She got to meet her sister’s friends and see her graduate, spent time with her grandfather in the final years of his life, and generally reconnected.
“I needed to nurture the garden and root back down and just chill out,” she reflects. “When you’re in the film industry, it’s such a vortex. It’s a really incredible industry to be a part of, but you also have to be so careful because it can suck you right in and you can forget why you’re doing it and also forget about you as a person.
“So being here has been so healing in a lot of ways: I have my family here, this is where I grew up, I’m surrounded by nature, and also, during the pandemic, we’ve killed it. Whoever is living in New Zealand is blessed. I really do love being here. I think I’m finding my balance, basically; I’m finding where I need to be.”
What’s interesting is that a lot of the realisations that led to this new frame of mind came from working on Sweet Tooth, where the parallels between script and reality forced Stefania into some difficult confrontations.
For one thing, the show focuses on a deadly pandemic in a scarily possible apocalyptic future, and it premiered while the world is still battling Covid.
“It was crazy the way that everything aligned. Even while we were filming, so many things were happening in real time that paralleled the script, and they had to change things as we went, because even though they had written it before, all this shit was actually happening,” recalls Stefania.
“It was kind of weird because I’m a very huggy person, and I realised how much that’s actually a big thing for me to connect with people. So to suddenly not have that when you’re starting something that’s really intense, and to not have that connection to the people that you’re working with, it makes a difference.
“It worked for the show, because it was literally what was happening in that world with everything being unknown, the distance between people, this mistrust. But it was kind of bizarre.”
It wasn’t just the day-to-day realities of living through Covid being reflected in the show; there were elements of the story – and particularly Stefania’s character, Bear – which resonated so strongly she can barely believe how it all came together, even now.
“From the first time I read the script, I was so passionate about the story. I still can’t believe I got to play a character like Bear, because it’s not often that I get to see or play a really strong, kick-ass character, where it’s not the daughter, not the sister; she’s a stand-alone warrior,” Stefania enthuses.
“In my personal life, I felt a lot of anxiety and insecurity because of these unknown times, and it was kind of freaky to feel those really strong, intense emotions, and then also have something that I was really passionate about, and I didn’t want to f*** it up, basically.”
For the first time in her life, Stefania allowed herself to lean into those difficult emotions and let them fuel her work. She’s been acting since she was 10 – her first role was in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones – and throughout her life on set, she’s “pushed through” the stress and anxiety that comes with the job.
“This time I just allowed myself to feel the heaviness and, in the end, it allowed it to be an even more meaningful experience because I got so close to the people I was working with. I just felt so warmed by how human beings are when you’re not good. I’m so used to just being like, ‘Oh no, I have to be good and I have to be positive’, but there were times on set where I actually had panic attacks, but [the crew] would be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got you, it’s okay.’”
Stefania also found more work-life parallels after she spent last year studying two papers at Massey University – one on critical thinking, one on social anthropology – not working toward any particular qualification or career, but just for the joy of learning.
“I mean, that definitely didn’t help the anxiety and stress levels!” she laughs. “But I was really thirsty to learn, especially after lockdown.”
Her anthropology paper was about endangered cultures and focused on indigenous people pre-colonisation and capitalism.
“It felt like studying for the role because Bear is an activist. She’s discontented with the way that humans have behaved and treated the world, and she believes that’s the reason why the pandemic happened, because of the selfishness and greed that humans placed upon themselves. So I felt like I went on the journey with my character. Bear loses her army really early on, so everything she knows crumbles and she has to just walk forward even though she’s uncertain. She puts on a brave face, but she has no idea what she’s doing.
“That’s kind of what happened to me in my real life, like, ‘I have no idea what’s going on, I don’t really know if this is gonna last forever, but I just have to keep moving forward and hopefully, it’s going to come right.’”
The only question now is what moving forward looks like for Stefania. One thing’s for sure, she’s not rushing to make any plans.
“I’ve noticed this year that every plan I’ve thought was going to happen, hasn’t – like the Queenstown thing has just become this running joke in my own mind. Basically, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few months. I’m just trying my best to take it day by day and just see how I go,” she says with a shrug.
She’s taking another uni paper – Engaging with Māori – learning about Te Tiriti, te reo, tikanga, philosophy and more. And she definitely plans to continue acting, ideally in a role “more light-hearted and fun” after the heavy emotion of Sweet Tooth, but she’s wary of boxing herself in.
“When I was away [in the van], I was questioning whether acting is actually something I want to continue with. But having that space away from it, I really realised how passionate I am about acting. It’s something I feel connected with, and I hope to feel connected to it throughout my life,” she says.
“I also feel like there are other things that I want to do and we’re living in a world where we can do that. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to do and I have to remind myself – and my sisters remind me too – like, ‘One step at a time, girl, you’re not going to complete everything at once.’”
Stefania hasn’t been actively auditioning since Sweet Tooth – a risk at a time when she will surely be heavily sought-after and when most other actors would be seeking to build momentum and ride the wave of success.
“I’m learning to just go at a slower pace and be OK with that stillness,” she says. “It’s kind of a hard thing being like, ‘Oh my God, am I losing opportunities?’ But I’m learning to trust that and to be like, ‘I’m taking a break and focusing on other things,’ and also thinking, ‘OK, what are these other possibilities?’
“There are so many things I want to create, so many things I want to learn. Wherever that leads me, we’ll see. We’re all going through some type of shedding layers and discovering, so it’s very scary, confusing and exciting.”